“We strive for an inclusive culture in all faculties and in all bachelor’s and master’s programs”
Erasmus University Rotterdam has invested more in its central Diversity & Inclusion Office than at any other Dutch university, with the majority of its work being divided into several projects. Dr. Kate Kirk is project leader for the portfolio students and education. "For a better understanding of diversity and inclusion, it is important that we talk to each other. People sometimes think: oh, this is not about me. But, we are all diverse so a more inclusive organisation can benefit everyone.”
Dr. Kirk is an anthropologist by background and has conducted research on the impact of Dutch migration and integration policies. Prior to working at Erasmus University Rotterdam she was an assistant professor at Leiden University. “I have done research and taught about migration and diversity issues at several Dutch Universities, where the organisations themselves were not always diverse or inclusive. It is this discrepancy that inspired me to take on this new role. In comparison with other Dutch Universities, the Erasmus University has made a very significant investment in the Diversity & Inclusion Office. This investment says a lot about how important we find these issues.”
Perhaps, because we also have the most diverse student population?
“The student population is also diverse, yes. But still: if you look at this university, the student population does not reflect the diversity in this city, and we would like to change that. In addition, there are other forms of diversity that do not always have to be visible, such as sexual orientation or able-bodiedness.”
Can you explain what you mean by ‘inclusive education’, what is the work that has to be done?
“Inclusive education is an approach to education in which diverse students and teachers feel a high level of psychological safety because they feel they belong, that their voice is respected and that they can be successful regardless of visible or invisible aspects that may differentiate them from others such as their class, 'race', cultural background, gender, sexuality or whether they may have a functional impairment. We want to provide the inclusive educational tools that are necessary to respectful and compassionate discussions; especially in settings that maintains connection between individuals and across difference. We want students to feel seen and heard.”
Apparently, this is not always the case, otherwise this project wouldn’t be necessary. Who is responsible, the teachers? The material or literature? Or something else?
“We have a very good working relationship with the Centre for learning innovation (CLI) and RISBO. We are developing a series of micro-lab trainings together with CLI and RISBO on inclusive education. Teachers have an important role in making the university more inclusive. But they cannot do this alone. The organisation needs to support them in making their courses and lessons more inclusive. Teachers might feel work pressure especially since they have done so much to get our courses online. I don't want to leave the task of making our education more inclusive to teachers alone. This really is something we must do together. The central- and faculty level leadership play an important role as well.”
Can you give concrete examples of making teaching material inclusive?
“For example: getting teachers to think carefully where their case studies come from, to think how they choose them and whether there is also a diverse range of perspectives and backgrounds within literature. Supporting the development of teaching material that ensures students are acquiring critical thinking skills in which they can recognize a diversity of perspectives. So, for example, that they can see: 'this comes from a Western, heterosexual, male perspective'. Or ask themselves: ‘Would our outcomes be different if we consider research utilising a different perspective?’”
Why is inclusive education important?
“As a university we want to make our research and education more socially relevant. Supporting ‘impact driven education’ is an important part of our strategy. We want students and teachers to get involved in the city of Rotterdam and challenge them to do interdisciplinary research that benefits the city and its citizens Therefore, we must train students and teachers in such a way that they are comfortable in doing research together in diverse groups. Rotterdam is a super-diverse city. We want to offer students tools to make the best of this diversity, learn from it, and create impact.”
Another part of your project is listening to feedback from students. Are you specifically looking for feedback from non-white students, or non-heterosexual students?
“It’s important to us that students who feel marginalized know they can come talk to us about their concerns and share their idea about how to make the university more welcoming. That said, we do try to involve all students. For diversity and inclusion, it is important that we talk to each other. People might think: diversity is not about me. But it is about you. Even if you belong to a majority or even if you have a position of power in society. We strive for a program in which everyone feels they can contribute to inclusion and are responsible for it.”
How can students give feedback?
“They can always email us with their ideas or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or walk by the office (AB-47). We will start recruiting students for our student panel in the coming few months. And students can get involved in the “Living Room”. This is a place where different people and organizations come together, such as the Erasmus School of Colour, the Erasmus Pride, the Happy Student Society. The Living Room was developed to promote the well-being of students, to start a dialogue, to organize debates. Before corona, it was also intended to be a place where students could always come together and since then it has offered digital alternatives.”
How important is the presence of professors of colour to students?
“Inclusive education cannot be seen separately from diversity in staff. All students need role models. We still see too many talented master's students, even PhD students, leaving academia because they don't recognize themselves in the staff or in the culture. We have to change this because we are losing talented people and fresh perspectives.
Where or how do you see discrimination? And what are you doing about it?
“After this interview, I have an introductory interview with the chair of the Chinese student association. This is the most diverse student association on the EUR, because many students have joined who are interested in China and the Chinese language. When covid19 started they organized a debate about discrimination against Chinese students, because incidents had taken place. We will support and work together with all student- and study associations that want to talk about discrimination and how to prevent it.
Another example: during the Black lives matter protests, the Erasmus School of Colour (ESoC) wrote a critical article for EM Magazine about structural racism at the university. Our Chief Diversity Officer, Prof.dr. Semiha Denktas, invited the students to come and talk to her and the Rector, with the aim to find out how we could support ESoC and students facing these issues better. As an outcome, we will be further supporting ESoC in their efforts to raise awareness for racial equality at the university, we are all responsible. It is important that we can talk about racism at the university. It is a sensitive subject; many people are afraid of it. But through communication training we want to offer teachers and students the tools how talk about racial and other forms of discrimination in a respectful way. This is one of our central goals: not only creating ‘safe spaces’ for people to share dialogue but also ‘brave spaces’. A brave space encourages dialogue that might be uncomfortable, because everyone will be asked to do the work of coming to new ways of understanding.” |